Moroccan maze runner

Marrakesh. I’ve been once before, years ago, on one of my very first adventures. I had recently decided to try to pull myself together after my wife left me, and travelling on my own and online dating were two equally unexplored areas in my life, so I combined the two, sitting on a rooftop café in the medina, overlooking Djmaa el Fna, the market square, and browsed OKCupid for the highest percentage matches I could find. There was a Bostonian woman that sounded more interesting than most, so I sent off my scribblings on Marrakesh by way of introduction, not thinking there was much chance of getting a reply. Fast forward three years and I am making my way across el Fna to another riad, where the same woman now awaits my arrival.

We’ve shared many adventures and misadventures over these years, and to celebrate that it seems logical to return to where it all began. L is just back from a tour of the desert, but she has already had a run-in with the denizens of the labyrinth, a young man who showed her to the door of the hotel (all of fifty metres away) and demanded five dollars for his “service”. It is a suitable intro to this weekend, for we will get lost many a time over the course of the next two days, as the meandering alleyways and many dead ends of the medieval medina make it a virtual maze to navigate. Add to that the constant bustle and the cornucopia of trinkets and strange food and woven carpets and intricate woodwork and Berber knitware and a hundred other wares on offer, plus the insistent hawkers and street urchins – all out to get your attention and consequently your money – and you have a streetscape that is equal parts Escher and Bruegel does Baghdad.

The one thing I didn’t do last time I was here was buy lamps. Among the many, many things on offer, the Morroccans make wonderful chiselled lamps and lamp screens out of beaten copper, silver and other metals. Hidden away in a back street we find a 500-year-old funduq, or caravanserail, which is like entering Ali Baba’s cave of treasures. I know what I want, and after a long but pleasant haggling match we come away with a drop-shaped lamp each, plus two shield-shaped screens for me.

Another place we venture into is a natural apothecary, where we stock up on argan oil (made in situ by a woman seated on the floor) and other ointments and unguents. L finds a shawl purveyor in the dyers’ district where she buys cashmere pashminas at ridiculous prices, and I shop sturdy leatherbelts from an equally sturdy and leathery artisan and a knitted hat from a Berber woman in the slave market that she sells so cheaply that it’s as if slavery was still a thing.

The constant negotiations are fun if you are in the mood, irksome if you’re not, and exhausting regardless, so we divide our day up in excursions into the fray and downtime either back at base in the riad or on a rooftop café somewhere. Interestingly, since all houses have these outdoor living rooms on top of them, it’s a whole different world up here: the chaotic, labyrinthine existence of the old streets below fall away, and lush, open, contemplative one takes its place. The streets are narrow partly to keep the sun’s rays out, which of course is needed when it gets really hot, but which also makes it quite oppressive when you’re down there, especially since the blocked-out sun would have otherwise provided at least some help in navigating the winding passages. How lovely then to suddenly rise above the din and take in the Atlas Mountains and the many terraces adorned with shrubs, ornamental flowers and even whole fruit trees.

In the evenings we go to el Fna to eat at the many portable kitchens that set up shop there every night. It is a scene that has to be seen to be believed. In between snake charmers and henna artists and acrobats are dozens of mini-restaurants, all vying for your custom. You move between the stands, taking a starter of snail soup here, a main course of lamb’s head there, and maybe some halva (sesame seed paste) dessert, washed down with wonderfully spicy tea.

The second day we venture away from the main shopping districts and end up being taken on a tour of the Berber tanneries. The Berbers come down from the mountains twice per week to sell their skins (goat and camel, mainly), and then they are prepared in open air tanneries where they are scraped, soften (by being trampled in large pits filled with guano) and dyed, using various plants. It is a sight to behold, and the smell is quite powerful – although nothing like what it would be on a hot day. Besides, we have a Berber gas mask (a sprig of wild mint) each to hold under our noses, so that’s bearable. Less so is the fact that our impromptu guide again tries to impose a rather hefty fee on us for his troubles, ex post. This is after we have already been ushered into a shop where L has bought a pair of fine leather slippers, but that doesn’t let us off the hook, apparently. In the end we gave him something for his troubles (which we had planned on doing anyway), but the experience was made less pleasant as a result.

As it would turn out, that was only the beginning of our troubles. On the way back from the tanneries we got hopelessly lost. This happens all the time and didn’t really worry me. The only thing I wanted to avoid was having a kid walking us all the way, so instead I asked a shop keeper woman if she could point us the right direction. She declined to do so, but called to a young man in a shop across the road and asked him to help us. I repeated my wish to only have the direction given to me, and he gave us some, but then soon caught up with us in the next alley and started walking ahead of us whilst pointing out nonsensical facts. I didn’t like the look of that, especially since we seemed to be moving away from the more populated streets, and lo and behold, before long we were in a culdesac, and three or four of his friends materialise as if from nowhere, demanding we pay him for his ” tour guide service”. One of them quickly gets physical and tries to grab me, asking why I won’t talk to him – I merely snarl at him, demanding he get his hands off me. I’m furious, mostly with myself for not seeing this coming, and am fully prepared to fight my way out. L says afterwards that I looked ready to go berserk. Maybe that’s what saves us, or maybe it would have got us both into more trouble still, had I acted upon it. We will never know, because next my assailant tries to provoke me by calling me a woman. What is probably a mortal insult to him is nothing of the sort to me, coming from a different cultural background, and that realisation is all I need to get out of the red haze. I look around to ensure L is ok, and then stalk out of there, not even looking to see what the miscreants will do, and within a minute we are back in a bustling food market, and the only blood on the ground is that of a fishmonger’s wares.

It’s the sort of experience that can make you go off a place, but for the most part people here really are lovely. Like the women who applaud L as we go running together (something which I admit I wasn’t at all certain how people would react to), or the family of three that we end up seated next to that same evening at the Fna food stands. They let me taste their food to help me decide which local delicacy I like best (the answer is tangia, lamb and dried plums cooked in sealed crockery that is submerged into a bed of embers). Unfortunately the grand Fna-le ends on a low note, as one of the young men employed by the food vendors to get you to sit at their table suddenly confronts us and accuses us of lying for not coming to eat at his establishment. I cannot even say that I remember having spoken to him before – there are so many of them, and for the most part I try to ignore them – but he gets more and more upset, finally telling us to “go home, we don’t need people like you in Morrocco!”

And so we do. It’s a sad ending to the adventure, which has had more than its share of ups and downs. The maze has one more trick up its sleeve, however. The next morning sees the Marrakesh marathon coincide with my departure. I have asked several times in the riad if this will impact on my travel arrangements, and been assured repeatedly that it won’t. But as I try to leave for the airport, we don’t get five minutes before traffic is first diverted by, and then comes to a complete stop as a result of thousands of runners blocking our way. 45 minutes of nervous waiting later I decide that I can’t risk it, and get my bags out of the back of the taxi, get directions from the driver (who isn’t charging anything for that or any other service) and set off on foot towards the airport, running against the steady stream of marathoners. In the end I make it with time to spare, and the driver even catches up with me right outside the gates, and takes me the last three hundred meters to the departure hall, so my very last impression of the country is a positive one, after all.

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